There were questions from Democrats, Republicans, and independents for Joe Biden at his first presidential town hall Tuesday night. Then there was a little girl in the second grade who, with help from her mother, asked when children might be able to get the vaccine.
The president started by explaining that the COVID vaccine had not been cleared for use by young children. Biden didn’t bother with a detailed explanation about the ins-and-outs of clinical trials. It wouldn’t have been appropriate. A grandfather and a retail politician, he reassured her instead that kids “are the safest people in the whole world.” It was extremely unlikely, he added, that children exposed to the coronavirus could “spread it to mommy or daddy.”
But if children aren’t as susceptible to the virus and aren’t as likely to pass it on to adults, why do most public schools remain closed? Getting kids in classrooms was very much the defining issue of the evening, and Biden walked back comments made by his own press secretary. When asked about resuming in-person classes for students in kindergarten through middle school, he told CNN host Anderson Cooper, “I think we’ll be close to that at the end of the first 100 days. We have had a significant percentage of them being able to be opened.”
The answer reflected the pressure the new administration is feeling over closed public schools. It was White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki who set a low bar when she said that the administration hoped to have the majority of schools, just 51%, open at the end of his first 100 days as president. “That means some teaching in classrooms,” she said, “so at least one day a week.”
But at the beginning of the month, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky gave parents hope when she said that vaccinating teachers wasn’t a prerequisite for opening schools. “There is increasing data to suggest that schools can safely reopen,” Walensky explained at the White House coronavirus briefing, adding, “Safe reopening does not suggest that teachers need to be vaccinated in order to reopen safely.”
Psaki quickly contradicted that statement, curiously telling reporters the next day that the CDC director was only speaking in her “personal capacity.” At the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee Tuesday night, however, it was the president who corrected his press secretary. Her one-day-a-week goal, he said, was “a mistake in the communication.”
When a Washington Post reporter noted the reversal on Twitter, Psaki tried to square her past comments with the new standard. “Last week I said @POTUS goal was to open schools five days a week as quickly as possible,” she wrote. “And that we are going to rely on science. Which is exactly what we are doing.”
The CDC released that long-awaited guidance last week. The verdict: K-12 schools should open when they can put in place mitigation measures. For elementary schools and middle schools, in-person precautions include masks and physical distancing and handwashing. High schools are expected to follow those same measures for in-person learning but only if the surrounding community is not experiencing the highest threshold of virus transmission.
Teacher unions are still balking, however, asserting that the guidelines might not be enough. A high school teacher voiced that concern Tuesday night when asking the president, “Why is it okay to put student and teachers in close proximity to each other for an entire day, day-after-day?”
“Nobody is suggesting, including the CDC in its recent report, that you have large classes, congested classes,” Biden replied. “It’s about needing to be able to socially distance, smaller classes, more protection, and I think the teachers and the folks who work in the school, the cafeteria workers and others, should be on the list of preferred to get a vaccination.”
After nearly a year of remote instruction, this kind of back-and-forth has left parents exhausted and schoolchildren frustrated. Republicans, glad to be out of the spotlight, have highlighted the issue as an early failure of the Biden administration.
“The science says that the schools should open, but instead of listening to the science, the Biden administration is caving in to Democrat special interest groups,” RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel recently said. “As a result, the education of our children is suffering and hundreds of thousands of working moms are being forced out of the workforce.”
Biden vowed in December that getting kids into classrooms, and keeping them there, should “be a national priority.” But he included plenty of wiggle room in that promise. “If Congress provides the funding, we need to protect students, educators and staff; if states and cities put strong public health measures in place that we all follow,” he said, “then my team will work to see that a majority of our schools can be open by the end of my first 100 days.”
This put the onus back Congress. House Democrats have responded by proposing -- but not yet passing -- a mammoth COVID relief bill that includes $129 billion in education relief funding. While the money can be used for any number of measures needed to reopen schools safely, such as reducing class sizes or upgrading ventilation systems, the legislation includes a mandate that school districts put 20% of the money towards getting students back up to speed. The Senate, which spent last week grappling with the impeachment trial of Donald Trump, is awaiting action by the House while weighing parliamentary questions about whether it can enact such package on a simple majority vote.
Republicans have questioned whether that amount of spending might be over the top, a suggestion that the president’s nominee for education secretary tried to squash. “The funds that are being discussed,” Miguel Cardona said during his committee hearing last week, “are really to help us with the long-term recovery process, preventing layoffs, when we need more teachers, not less.”
(The CARES Act relief package, enacted last year, included $44 billion for school "stabilization," most of which remains unspent. Another $54 billion was allocated under the supplemental relief bill signed into law in late December.)
The debate over when to reopen schools has been cast as an early test of the president’s ties to teacher unions. The issue has already put Democratic governors such as California’s Gavin Newsom in a bind, and the administration has been hesitant to wade into arguments like the one engulfing Chicago’s public school system where teachers are demanding vaccines before returning to the classroom. “If it comes down to a binary choice,” a reporter recently asked the White House press secretary, “who would the president choose: the kids or the teachers?” Psaki rejected the premise of the question.
What can’t be denied is that teacher unions supported Biden overwhelmingly in 2020 – with money as well as votes. What’s more, the president has a unique relationship with these unions. His wife, the first lady, is a longtime member. On the first full day of the new administration, Dr. Jill Biden hosted a summit to celebrate educators. Just two guests were invited to the White House: the heads of the two largest public teachers unions in the country.
There was Becky Pringle, the president of the National Education Association. “I'm so proud that you are leading the NEA, which as you probably know is my union,” the first lady said by way of introduction. And there was Randi Weingarten, the leader of the American Federation of Teachers, a labor leader whom Dr. Biden described as “the kind of general who is never far from the front lines.”
Pringle and Weingarten heaped praise on the new president and, so far, have been hesitant to publicly criticize him. They know they have an ally in the White House. “You know, over and over, I've made you a promise,” the first lady said at the conclusion of the summit, “that when Joe was elected president, that you will always have a seat at the table. And I meant it.”